The Statue of Liberty, Travel, and Innovation

Have you been to the Statue of Liberty?

Ask a New Yorker if s/he has been to the Statue of Liberty. In my (very) unscientific poll, 9 out of 10 had never been, and the one that had went on a 5th grade field trip. Now ask someone from another part of the United States or another country. I’ll bet that it’s a totally different result.

Maybe this isn’t a revolutionary observation. I’ll admit that the Statue of Liberty may not be the most exciting destination, but it does raise an interesting question. Why are we often complacent in our normal surroundings yet so observant and inquisitive when we travel somewhere new?

I believe it is because travel – especially international travel – is sensory overload. The unfamiliar sights, smells, and tastes make even mundane experiences interesting. In another country, going to the market, taking the bus, or chatting with a stranger can be mini-adventures that turn into life-long memories.

But it doesn’t stop there. We bring those experiences back with us, and they make us see our normal surroundings in a new light. This type of introspection and analysis helps drive invention and innovation – personally and professionally.

In the U.S., companies often think about applying business practics to less-developed markets, but this type of exchange can be a two-way street. Toms and Wal-Mart are two examples of U.S.-based companies that have successfully applied ideas from less-developed markets.

Case #1: TOMS Shoes Inspire Social Change

Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, has had an interesting career trajectory that has included starting a laundry delivery business, creating an outdoors-themed media company, and a stint on reality television.

While on a return trip to Argentina after filming The Amazing Race, Mycoskie noticed that children in many of the smaller Argentine villages didn’t have shoes. In order to help the children in these communities, he decided to create TOMS, modeling his shoes after the classic alpargata worn in Argentina. Since 2006, Mycoskie has built a wildly successful business, and the “One for One” philosophy has enabled TOMS to donate over 10 million pairs of shoes.

Case #2: Wal-Mart Transitions from Big Box to Small Stores

In South America, many consumers cannot afford to purchase, transport, and store large quantities of products like consumers in the U.S., which created a big problem for Wal-Mart – champion of the big box store and economies of scale.

In order to compete in this market, Wal-Mart created a small-store format that offers smaller quantities but still enables consumers to benefit from lower prices due to the company’s behind-the-scenes operations. Due to success of the small-store format, Wal-Mart has leveraged the strategy in extremely high- and low-density areas of the U.S. that cannot support the traditional big box format. Although Neighborhood Market and Express stores only represent about 10% of all Wal-Mart locations, they will account for approximately 40% of new store openings in 2013.

What does this mean for innovation?

To innovate, you need to look around, observe what is, and create a new vision for what could be. It’s not easy, especially if you are following the same routine, talking with the same people, and working away in the same cubicle.

International travel is a great way to spark new ideas and broaden stagnant horizons. While hopping on a plane and jetting off isn’t always feasible, we can still apply these lessons in everyday life. Next time you’re walking down the street looking down at your smartphone (you know who you are!), think about these 3 lessons:

  1. Observe – Take an active interest in your surroundings.
  2. Question – Ask why we do things a certain way.
  3. Say “Hi” – Meet new people with different knowledge, skills, and interests. Listen.

Most importantly, whether it’s Buenos Aires or a walk around the block, get up and go!